Ever since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was introduced in 1975 – guaranteeing students with exceptional needs access to free and appropriate public education – the field of special education has changed substantially. One thing has remained constant: special education is a charged topic. From concerns on how to attract high-quality teaching candidates to optimizing curriculum and teaching techniques, best practices continue to be hotly debated among experts and educators.
To learn more about the most pressing issues facing today’s special educators, we spoke with four leading experts in the field.
Special education jobs and pedagogies are constantly evolving. What’s the biggest change that you’ve witnessed since starting your career?
Mikki Garcia, president at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC): The push towards educating students in the general education environment. Putting the kids in the environment was easy; making sure they are getting a quality education is more difficult. If implemented correctly, this service delivery model is much more expensive, and without adequate federal funding the responsibility is put on the local education agency. The biggest challenge though lies in the general education environment itself and the willingness of administrators and teachers to do their part. Constant training and monitoring has helped but attitudes are hard to change.
Dr. George Giuliani and Dr. Roger Pierangelo, executive directors at the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET): There’s been a greater awareness of general education teachers, administration and staff. That being said, there’s a need for more undergraduate and graduate school coursework for future general education teachers in special education classroom management.
Matt Asner, vice president of development at the Autism Society of America: Our college and graduate-level teacher training programs are outdated. Special education is still an unfunded mandate, meaning federal law requires states to make sure school districts provide students who have disabilities with a free and appropriate public education, but the federal government does not provide funds for them to do that.
What are the greatest challenges facing special educators, students and their families?
Dr. Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS): The biggest challenge is effectively engaging general educational administrators and instructional peers to include and provide high-quality support to students with a diverse range of disabilities. Special educators also frequently struggle with inadequate resources, specialized personnel shortages and cumbersome paperwork that can require substantial quantities of time.
Garcia: The shortage of highly trained special education teachers is an alarming reality. It’s a very difficult job and we just don’t have enough teachers out there to meet the very specific needs of students with exceptionalities.
Giuliani and Pierangelo: There are also issues pertaining to the budgets of school districts relative to making sure the needs of students are met as dictated by federal, state and local laws. For families, the challenge is ensuring teachers are aware of children’s IEPs [individualized education programs] and that they’re being delivered. Additional special education trends include addressing the needs of English-language learners who are also students with disabilities, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), best practices for teaching and medication management, and research-based interventions.
Assistive technology such as iPads, text-to-voice devices and digital pens are increasingly popular in the classroom for special education and general learners alike. What are the benefits and challenges of these technologies and what can we expect to see in the future?
Garcia: The special education field is always looking for ways to provide access to students who have varying needs – from communication devices for those students who have difficulty speaking to mobility devices for students who have ambulatory issues. Districts are obligated to perform assessments and determine what types of assistive technology devices will help a child best access the curriculum. There is nothing better than seeing a child, who has previously had difficulty with some aspect of access, be able to function more easily because of assistive technology.
Asner: Assistive technology is revolutionizing education but unfortunately schools are way behind the curve in terms of learning how to use it. As we saw recently with LAUSD and the iPad debacle, even when there is money to spend on devices and hardware the knowledge base isn’t there to know how to use it. Especially for students and adults who use augmentative communication, technology has completely changed the terrain. Now almost everybody communicates by typing out what they want to say, by texting and tweeting. The digital revolution has put this in everybody’s hands. Now we have to use it to create space for open and effective communication for people with communication-related disabilities.
From the shortage of special education teachers in nearly every state to classroom integration and new technologies, there’s no question that today’s special education issues will continue to shape the role of future special educators.